Boulder City has found its way into the middle of what has been dubbed “a premier postmodern Western.” Dealing with reincarnation, mysticism, visions, purgatory and the Wild West, writer Jim Jarmusch brought together actors Johnny Depp, Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover and Iggy Pop for a black and white film titled “Dead Man.”
According to IMDB.com, the 1995 movie “Dead Man” was filmed around Boulder City and at Hoover Dam. Jarmusch once told Charlie Rose he wrote the movie without a storyboard or a clear plot. The writer only had a concept for an audience experience based on his fascination with the poet and painter William Blake. Blake is also the purposeful name of the movie’s leading character played by Depp.
The cast for “Dead Man” is humorously ironic. Pop plays a cross-dressing preacher, Thornton embraces his role as a backwoods outlaw who is more hungry than smart, and Glover taunts Depp’s character as a gutterpop vagabond welcoming riders on a train to hell. Depending on your religious views, “Dead Man” sparks debate if the train is a spiritual vessel or just a simple reference to Western culture in the 1800s.
Depp couldn’t have been a better choice to play the lead. The Academy Award-nominated actor easily draws the audience into the film through his overtly passive emotions about his plight as either a man on the run after killing someone in self-defense or as a lost spirit seeking redemption. Slant Magazine noted, “The ultimate goal for Depp’s Blake is one of consciousness.”
I believe Depp was so convincing in his role because we all have to live with the fear that comes with knowing we will perish regardless of social status, religious beliefs or lifestyle choices. It is exactly this vulnerability that Depp brings alive in “Dead Man.”
Depp’s career has always been a collage of eccentric work. Like his character with dissociative identity disorder for the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “Secret Window,” Depp’s ability to act as a medium for different characters is its own form of masterful cinematic reincarnation. From “Cry Baby” and “Ed Wood” to “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “The Libertine,” there is no question the actor’s talent is an unpredictable lightning rod.
“Dead Man” is special because it deals with the uncertainty of purpose. Regardless if you agree with movie critics who say it’s nothing more than a story of greed, cannibalism and perverse characters with murderous tendencies, or if you side with those who regard it as a movie about the ramifications of spiritual beliefs and self-reflection, 20 years later, “Dead Man” remains the subject of controversy.
The question of a connection between Depp’s Blake and the actual poet is a genius move by the film’s writer. The poet Blake had visions that stayed with him throughout his life. He was vocal about his visions, claiming they’re a gift that we are all born with. Blake often implied others purposely dimmed their visions to fit in with society. The poet was a mystic who often contradicted his experiences in an effort to discover who he truly was. Depp’s Blake manages to do the same in the film.
“Dead Man” is also shrouded in controversy because of the rumors that watching the movie can open up a portal to another realm of existence. In movie circles, rumors remain that whomever watches this movie will experience strange and unsettling visions.
When I worked for Depp in 2008, I couldn’t confirm any truth to the rumors — or that the actor was visited by ghosts on the set.
Thus, I caution you on this Throwback Thursday to keep an open mind while watching “Dead Man.” Not only is it an interesting point of reference for its tie to Boulder City, but it has a haunting score done entirely by Neil Young. As far as the possibility to resolve questions of who we start out as and who we become, or if there is life after death, I’d have to say that those answers remain not so black and white.
Tanya Vece is an entertainment and music writer who resides and volunteers in Boulder City. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @hollywoodwriter.